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Balancing Act: Online bullies make world a bitter, not better, place

A dear friend and I were talking recently about getting punched in the gut by online comments.

She is an author and she’d just been called a pagan and a Wiccan by a reader who didn’t find her writings on Christianity to be Christian enough. That same day, I’d been called pointless and ugly and accused of dragging readers into the dark recesses of my lonely soul just so I’d have some company.

She’s neither pagan nor Wiccan and I’m not actually lonely, but that’s beside the point. Commenters are rarely searching for unequivocal truth when they choose which words to wield. They just want to leave a mark.

The barbs arrive daily, which is, in the grand scheme of occupational hazards, relatively benign. No one is shooting at me. I’m not developing black lung. I read the remarks from the comfort of a cushioned chair in a climate-controlled building.

Plus, to share your thoughts is to invite discourse. And discourse isn’t always civil.

Still, they sting.

My friend wondered whether it’s possible to develop thicker skin, and I wondered whether that’s even a worthy ambition. We weighed the merits of ignoring our detractors versus replying in defense. We contemplated a move to the remote Pitcairn Islands, 1,300 miles from civilization.

But that’s all beside the point too.

Because the most toxic and inescapable fallout from reading hateful comments – directed at anyone, obviously, not just me – is how they infect your outlook.

I had just spent the day at Navy Pier’s chaotic, crazy-making Winter Wonderfest with my kids, where we watched families of all colors and sizes and temperaments slide and spin and ice skate. All of our differences fall away when our kids are happy. All of our eyes get that same twinkle, rimmed with happy tears, when we delight in our children.

People are good, I thought. It’s a lovely place, this world. Flawed and messy and plagued by inequities, but filled with fathers and mothers and daughters and sons – humans whose hearts all spring to life at the same sights: joy, a well-earned victory, true love, laughter. We’ll be OK.

I returned to work the next day to emails from my friend-who’s-not-a-pagan and from readers who find me insufferable. I read a handful of Facebook comments and scanned my Twitter feed and thought, we’re a million miles apart, we humans. We don’t believe the same, want the same, love the same.

We’re not capable of disagreeing without disparaging. We assign people a place and shove them into it. We’re cruel.

People say our discourse is worse than ever. They blame the ease and anonymity of the Internet. But I disagree.

I used to work with a whip-smart editor who spent the late ’60s working at a newspaper in South Carolina, where her job was to open and read the letters to the editor. She is African-American. She said the content of those letters – signed, sealed and walked to a mailbox – make today’s online comments look like valentines.

It’s not worse than ever. But it’s not better than ever, either. And why not? Why aren’t we getting better at living with each other? Why are we launching national anti-bullying initiatives in our schools and coaching kids to embrace their differences, even as we type a bunch of vitriol at other grown-ups?

It’s a lousy example for our kids, but it’s also a zero-sum game. We don’t actually lift ourselves up by knocking people down. Nobody wins when we use our words as weapons. We just turn each other defensive and prickly and primed for a fight.

Politicians are fond of the Wall Street proverb, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Economists debate whether that’s a sound fiscal policy, but I think it’s worth considering as a motto for our dialogue.

Repeat it, maybe, before you dash off that hateful remark or weave together that string of insults. Remember that you don’t have to like or agree with every voice you encounter. You can rise above.

Breaking a stranger’s spirit is not actually a victory – for you, or for humanity.